Dir: Denis Villeneuve. Canada. 2000. 88 min.
Prod co: Max Films. Int'l sales: Alliance Atlantis International, tel: (1) 310 899 8000.
Prods: Roger Frappier, Luc Vandal. Scr: Villeneuve. DoP: Andre Turpin. Prod des: Sylvain Gingras. Ed: Richard Comeau. Music: Pierre Desrochers. Main cast: Marie-Josee Croze, Jean-Nicolas Verreault, Stephanie Morgenstern, Pierre Lebeau.

A masterful examination of modern morality, Maelstrom plays like the work of a master at the height of his powers. And yet it is only the second film of Quebecois director Villeneuve. The film premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival, where it won the audience prize as well as jury prize for cinematography. The audience at its Toronto screening gave it a standing ovation and it earned a 'special mention' in the category for best Canadian feature film. This could be the arthouse hit to rival Jean-Claude Lauzon's Leolo.

Villeneuve achieves a rapturous balance of darkness and levity in this story of a spoiled young woman whose life goes to pieces through her careless disregard for life's blessings. But she's given a second chance when she falls in love with the son of the man she has accidentally killed. The conceit is ludicrous but Villeneuve pulls it off with a counterweight dose of magical realism: the film is narrated by a fish.

Bibiane (the riveting Marie-Josee Croze) has it all - youth, looks, money, a BMW - and yet she's drifting. Recovering from an abortion, she sinks into depression and her attempts to break out of it through drugs and night-clubbing only make it worse. Then one night, returning home drunk at the wheel, she hits a pedestrian and leaves the scene. Her fear of getting caught - she's alone in the knowledge of her act - is soon overwhelmed by her guilt. When she discovers the personal details of her victim, she decides to take her own life. Intercutting snippets of fishy wisdom and moving back in time, Villeneuve adroitly saves her from herself and introduces the dead man's son (Jean-Nicolas Verreault).

The production features a lavish soundtrack featuring the likes of Tom Waits, a considerable expense for a film of its modest budget but well worth the atmospheric charge.